Shadow Government

West Point speech: This is not the Obama of 2008

President Obama's West Point speech on Saturday provides a great example of the structural continuities in American foreign policy. As president and commander-in-chief, Obama now embraces and owns policies that he previously eschewed. For example, after running his campaign denouncing the Iraq War and doubting the surge, he is now essentially declaring Iraq a victory ("this is what success looks like: an Iraq that provides no safe-haven to terrorists; a democratic Iraq that is sovereign, stable, and self-reliant.") After spending much of his first year in office downplaying if not ignoring democracy and human rights promotion, he is now making democracy and human rights promotion one of the four pillars of his national security strategy. After previously rhetorically distancing himself from American exceptionalism, he now says that a "fundamental part of our strategy is America's support for those universal rights that formed the creed of our founding."

In short, through a combination of the burdens and responsibilities of office, prevailing geopolitical realities, the deep cultural currents of U.S. foreign policy, the bureaucratic systems that reinforce those cultural currents, and the crucible of learning that takes place every day in the toughest job in the world, the President Obama of today acts and sounds considerably different than the one elected in November 2008. (John Hinderaker over at Powerline -- a site never hesitant to criticize the Obama administration -- makes a similar favorable observation about the speech and its essential continuity with U.S. foreign policy). This is not at all to say that his foreign policy is identical to that of his predecessors -- in important ways it does differ, and as I have written elsewhere, often not for the better -- but only to point out that truly profound structural changes in American foreign policy are very rare. And generally for good reason.

Some media coverage, such as Peter Baker's New York Times article, attempts to portray the speech as a "repudiation" or at least distancing from the Bush administration's grand strategy, and makes much of the fact that he did not emphasize "unilateral American power" or affirm "pre-emption" or "prevention." Baker is one of the very best, and best-sourced, White House correspondents around, so it may be that his article reflects some additional background conversations with Obama administration staff attempting to advance a particular message. But at least when it comes to the text of the speech, here I think Baker's article overshoots. 

For example, in the midst of discussing the importance of international cooperation, Obama described American leadership in "steering those currents in the direction of liberty and justice" -- in other words, a polite way of saying that American power and influence will continue to shape the international order. Or the fact that President Obama did not explicitly affirm the possibility of the preemptive use of force does not mean that his Administration actually rejects it. As historian John Gaddis has shown, since the days of John Quincy Adams (while Secretary of State to James Monroe), American presidents have reserved, and sometimes used, the right to take action against looming threats. Unless President Obama were to explicitly reject the possibility of ever using force in a preemptive or preventive manner to protect the nation (highly unlikely), it will remain an option within American national security doctrine. 

In his speech, President Obama also previewed his soon-to-be-released National Security Strategy, ostensibly built around the four pillars of connecting renewal at home with strength abroad, integrating diplomacy and development, building international cooperation and international institutions, and promoting human rights and democracy. As basic principles, these are sound. Whether they will amount to a coherent strategy (which needs to identify end goals, identify threats or obstacles to those goals, and explain how and why the tenets of the strategy will defeat those threats and overcome those obstacles) remains to be seen, once the NSS document itself is released.

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Shadow Government

Time to stop putting up with North Korea

After the suspicious sinking on March 26 of the South Korean corvette Cheonan in the Yellow Sea, an investigation was conducted by South Korea with assistance from the United States, Britain, Sweden, and Australia to determine the cause. The results are expected to be officially announced this week. It will come as little surprise that a North Korean torpedo attack will be found responsible for the death of 46 South Korean sailors.

Since 2008, North Korea has stepped up this kind of hostile activity. It has conducted more nuclear tests, launched at least 12 missiles and rockets, increased its arms trade with regimes like Iran, Republic of Congo, Syria and Burma, and increased its intelligence activities against South Korea. Even in the midst of this stepped-up bellicosity, the sinking of the naval ship Cheonan is perhaps the most blatant provocation against South Korea in the past two decades, and an act of war under international law. Ironically the DPRK continues to advocate publicly for the reunification of the Korean peninsula - while it attacks its own relatives.

It is not clear what drives North Korea's actions. Many speculate the regime does this to distract the international community during a volatile time of a leadership succession, or to divert the attention of its own oppressed citizens who live on less than 1700 calories a day, many of whom resort to grazing in local parks for edible grasses (which I saw firsthand during a visit to Pyongyang). The country as a whole continues to face the potential of another famine. Callous hardliners remain steadfast in tormenting their own people only for the sake of maintaining the regime's monopoly on power.

How will the international community react? Thus far, the U.S. has depended largely on the six-party talks to find a peaceful resolution to security concerns with North Korea, and during the past three years of South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak's administration, Seoul only took a reactive stance against North Korea's aggressions and left Kim Jong Il  in the driver's seat. Similarly in this instance, South Korea, the U.S. and the international community look likely to react by taking the sinking of the Cheonan to the U.N. Security Council and seeking greater sanctions against North Korea.

UNSC sanctions and condemnation are a necessary but not sufficient step. Now is the time for both South Korea and the United States to step up and define a firm policy towards North Korea. The Lee administration needs to stop pursuing a reactive policy and firmly declare its position towards the North. South Korea should preempt another North Korean provocation by defining new rules of engagement such that if North Korea seeks reunification or economic growth, it must adhere to an international framework with clear conditions and benchmarks. The burden of compliance must be put on the North. 

Next week, Seoul will be meeting with delegations from the United States and China.  During these meetings, South Korea should take the initiative to seek support for its North Korea policy. The U.S., which still has major military facilities on the peninsula, should express its unwillingness to resume six-party talks until the North demonstrates that it is meeting the clearly defined benchmarks set forth from the South Korean administration. Until North Korea starts adhering to South Korean and international standards, it should be put back on the United States list as a state sponsor of terror.  The U.S. should also press China, which is seeking an FTA with South Korea, to declare its support for Seoul's policy and not succumb to North Korea's manipulative appeals for continued aid. 

As long as China remains ambivalent in its reaction to North Korea's aggressive behaviour, it is demonstrating a continued interest in maintaining a divided peninsula that produces regional tension and instability. Without a clear strategy towards North Korea, we can expect more of North Korea's hostile actions.

JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images